Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2016

Canada needs a new strategy to tackle anti-poverty work

How to break the class ceiling

Pat Capponi

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!

Jostling academics, lawyers, reporters, coalitions, and religious groups who identify as anti-poverty fighters have not come up with anything substantive or evolutionary in decades. We are treated to the same tired approaches: demonstrations and denunciations; op-eds that vault the writer’s ego but quickly disappear from public consciousness; political parties that “own” the issue castigating their rivals; and obligatory feature articles on sympathetic poor people, but not too poor, not too facially marred by their lived reality—it must be inoffensive and calculated to spark pity, if not action.

And those who work at agencies that “serve” those in need? They feel good at intervening in the latest crisis, unaware that their clients experience a 24/7 crisis, impacting their health and hearts as their lives are wasting away or brutally ending. Staff police crowded spaces, dirty, chaotic, and grim, where hope and change never enter. They need to feel they do right by their clients, postponing evictions or handing out TTC tokens, although, at the end of the day, only they have their lives enhanced by salaries and offices and cars to whisk them out of bleak communities to more middle-class living.

Staff and experts don’t really know the entrenched poor. They certainly don’t socialize or spend any time with them outside work hours. We can see this in their asks: a bit more food, a few more dollars, and more and more social supports that infantilize, control, and maintain people in poverty. To justify this usurpation of voice it is often said that the poor have no time or energy to spend on their own liberation.

But in the end the question is: Whose poverty is it? It belongs to those who live it, know it, and struggle to survive it.

We have stumbled on a way to eliminate the class ceiling, and have found support from foundations and government to do so. But experts seem never to have thought about actually paying people to participate—relieving them of the burden of poverty for the time they spend learning from each other. Experts haven’t thought about letting them get used to having more, being more than simply a problem.

Those of us with lived experience of poverty, mental illness, single parents, refugees, homeless folks, people with addictions or physical disabilities are stepping out of our separate silos, re-integrating ourselves, telling each other our stories, and understanding through the process that poverty is the overriding issue—but poverty can be fought. The separate labels we carry serve only to keep us apart and in thrall to agencies. Yet once people start talking to each other about their experience of poverty, its shattering effects, how hard it is to escape, they can see how the agencies set them up to fail, and how they don’t see their potential, their ability. It’s not simply about complaining; it’s about identifying systemic issues and proposing solutions. It’s learning to speak in ways that those in power can hear and respond to. It’s recognizing that change has to start in our own lives, and that taking responsibility for mistakes made is part of that change. It’s about caring for the communities we come from, and working for all our benefit.

We need to start doing this in ways that are constructive in tone and substance. Let’s start fighting for ourselves and for lives that are worth living—a hearts-and-minds approach that takes us to tables around the city and circumvents both the experts and external advocates who would rather we simply attend and validate their events, cynically offering lures of watery soup, T-shirts, and stale sandwiches.

We must speak for ourselves and to policy makers, politicians, businesspeople, police, doctors, and funders—people who are affected by our presence, who have to revise their view of who the poor are, what they want, and how effectively they self-represent. We must ensure we take a holistic view of those living in poverty, no longer dividing them up according to funding mechanisms, but bringing people together so that we can support each other moving forward.

In my future Canada, we will talk about opportunity, whether in education, or employment; we will talk about wanting to work side-by-side with those with paper credentials to improve what is a failing system; and we will be welcomed. Already, we are building allies, people outside systems, who ensure we have doors opened that previously were closed. We are believing again in our own potential.

This is seismic change, not welcome everywhere, but change that will revolutionize how we see and treat the poor. Maybe, within the next decades, we can show that the poor will not always be with us, but will move up and out of what was thought to be forever.

Pat Capponi is a psychiatric survivor with lived experience of poverty, lead facilitator at Voices from the Street, and a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.

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